Every diner needs to know the do's and don'ts of restaurant dining. I think the experience of eating out should be good not just for the patrons, but also for the waitstaff. They work hard and, in most states, don't even make a living wage. That being said, I realizing that dining out is sort of like a dance; it requires careful choreography and certain things are needed from the servers and the people they serve. So let's take a look from both sides, shall we? Next time you head out to eat, think about the biggest do's and don'ts of restaurant dining.
1. Do: Tip
Of all the do's and don'ts of restaurant dining you will ever hear, this is the most important. A lot of people think that tipping is optional, but it's really not. Servers make their money through their tips; they have to pay taxes on tips, whether they receive them or not; and in many restaurants, they have to tip out to other members of the staff, such as the busboys, the host or hostess, and the bartenders, among others. That means that if you don't tip, or tip inadequately, they end up paying to serve you. Servers make far below minimum wage; sometimes their paychecks amount to nothing. In restaurants, the golden rule is that if you can't afford to tip, you shouldn't go out to eat. Remember, 15%-20% is standard, and it doesn't amount to much. Feel free to leave 25% or more for excellent service.
2. DON'T: Keep Complaints Entirely to Yourself
If you received really shoddy service, got the wrong meal, or in any way suffered, I know it's tempting not to tip. However, if you have a complaint, tell your server. Tell the manager, if you need to, but don't simply stiff the bill. Odds are, if you're polite but up front, you'll be treated well. Besides, you never know if there was actually a problem in the kitchen. The point is, don't be afraid to speak up, just be as respectful as possible and see if the situation can be rectified.
3. Do: Be on Time
If you make reservations, you have to be on time. It's simply the polite thing to do. By not showing up, it throws off the hostess and the waitstaff. If you're going to be late, which is sometimes unavoidable, simply call ahead and say so; it makes all the difference.
4. DON'T: Insist on Seating Incomplete Parties
If you're dining with friends, I understand that you'd rather be seated right away. If your dining companions are late, however, and your server seats you, then you're holding up the station, and the server wants to do the polite thing and serve everyone together. If they offer you seats at the bar, take them – and let habitual latecomers know they need to change their habits.
5. Do: Call and Ask about the Hours
Sometimes you're really hungry and you just want to eat out! That's totally understandable, just make sure that you call ahead first. That way you can calculate how much time you logically have to get there, get served, eat, and leave. Because...
6. DON'T: Show up Right before Closing
Showing up right before closing is a huge faux pas. Really, I know what you're thinking: if the restaurant is still open, you can still eat. In the main, that's true. However, if you show up 10 minutes before closing, you're keeping hostesses, servers, busboys, bartenders, and chefs there – until you leave. That doesn't bode well for them but it's not great for you, either, because you definitely don't want to feel rushed during your meal, right?
7. Do: Enjoy Coupons
Services like Groupon, Restaurant.com, and LivingSocial are awesome. They let you experience so many things you couldn't otherwise afford! If you see a deal for a restaurant you've always wanted to try or a new place in your area, take it! Try something new, plan a special night out, and really enjoy yourself. There's no reason not to splurge when your costs get cut in half.
8. DON'T: Tip on the Discounted Amount
However, it's good restaurant etiquette to tip on the full amount of your meal, before the discount. After all, your server isn't giving you half of your service. He or she is still providing a full experience, and the tip should reflect that. Because you're saving half off an otherwise pricier meal, you can easily afford to tip the full 20% or more on the actual price of your bill. Trust me, they'll appreciate it!
9. Do: Be Specific about Your Order
In no way should you ever play games with your order. If you like your steaks well done, specify that without worry – although you do have to realize that it will take a little longer to cook. If you like your fries well done or no chives on your baked potato, no problem! Don't be afraid to get specific, because that's the only way your servers know what you want!
10. DON'T: Send the Server Back 10 Times
If you need some extras, like more salad dressing, another order of bread, or a new straw, try to tell your server everything at once. Sending the server back and forth five times for five different items wastes time and it isn't fair to you, to your server, or to the other diners. They don't mind getting things for you, especially if they will improve your meal, just make sure to request them in a timely manner.
11. Do: Inform the Server about Allergies
You never want to play around with allergies! In addition to paying close attention to the menu and the ingredients listed, make sure you inform your server about any food allergies, whether they are large or small. Neither your health nor your dining experience should be compromised. If you need to, ask about possible substitutions as well, even if it requires an extra surcharge.
12. DON'T: Clean the Plate and then Complain
Even as a diner, this is a pet-peeve! If something isn't to your liking, tell your server! He or she will strive to make it better, even if it means refiring the food or bringing you another meal entirely. If, however, you clean your plate and then complain, the server can't fix the problem. If it's so bad in the first place, don't suffer through your meal, just be honest!
13. Do: Be Patient about Wait Times
Sometimes things take time, especially on weekends and holidays. You will occasionally have to wait, and sometimes those wait times will last a while. It's not the restaurant's fault, but I know it gets extremely frustrating. You have several choices, though: call ahead and see if you can make a reservation or take advantage of call-ahead seating; wait patiently until there's a table open; or simply go somewhere else. Sometimes you have to, especially if everyone's hungry.
14. DON'T: Seat Yourself
Most restaurants don't invite patrons to seat themselves. If you're able to sit at the bar, the hostess will tell you when you walk in. Otherwise, resist the urge! It doesn't matter if you see an open table or want to sit on the patio. That table might be reserved for someone else! Worse, when you seat yourself, the hostess won't know and can't alert the server that there's someone in the section. You won't get menus, you might not be served quickly, and everyone will end up feeling frustrated and resentful.
15. Do: Order Only when You're Ready
When you're checking out the menu, take your time! Sometimes there are so many delicious things on offer, it's hard to make a quick decision. That's no problem, you want to make sure you get exactly what you want. Just tell the server you need some more time or ask for a recommendation!
16. DON'T: Ignore the Server
You should never just ignore the server like he or she is a non-entity or a statue. Whether you're looking at the menu, talking to a dining companion, or taking a phone call, make sure you acknowledge your server, be polite, return greetings, and listen to what he or she has to say. Remember, when a server lists the specials or pushes an appetizer, it's generally because management requires it.
17. Do: Bring the Kids to Appropriate Places
Dining out with the kids is fun! Taking them to restaurants, seeing them full of wide-eyed wonder at all the people and activity, is absolutely precious! Just choose wisely and be courteous. Some restaurants aren't kid-friendly, so know ahead of time. For those places that do welcome children, just be polite – no parking the stroller right in the middle of the aisle or anything like that!
18. DON'T: Let the Kids Run Wild
You shouldn't let your children run around the restaurant, though! If they're getting a little restless and rambunctious, engage them with coloring books, stories, or small toys; you can even take them outside. However, in addition to bothering the other diners, it's dangerous to let them go off by themselves. Servers and busboys are all over the place, carrying heavy dishes and hot plates of food. I don't even want to think about that kind of collision!
19. Do: Enjoy Your Dining Experience
When you go out, you're going to have fun, and that's totally understandable! It probably sounds like I'm all pro-server, but these rules of the road make the experience pleasant for everyone. Again, just follow the golden rule; treat others the way you want to be treated. Remember that servers are only doing their jobs, even when they come to check on you ten minutes into the meal. Most of the time, they're happy to leave you and your dining companions to yourselves unless you need them, so that you can really enjoy your night out!
20. DON'T: Camp out
That being said, don't overstay your welcome if you're not eating or drinking anything anymore. By no means should you ever feel rushed or pushed out of a restaurant, but remember that time is money – and so is seating! If you're sticking around, order a dessert and a cup of coffee! If you're just chatting and sipping the last dregs of your soda, you might want to head to another venue or take it to the bar.
Although I've never been a server, Heather was; I learned early on that the way I behaved in a restaurant and treated the servers meant a great deal to her. Currently, my BFF is also a server, and it breaks my heart when he tells me stories about rude patrons and people who leave no tip. What do you think qualifies as excellent service? Do you ever refuse to leave a tip?